In order to secure and consolidate its control over Crimea, which Russia illegally annexed from Ukraine in early 2014, Moscow has been building a bridge across the Kerch Strait to provide a physical link between the occupied peninsula and Russia proper. The ongoing construction of the road-and-rail bridge reached a symbolic high point last year, when central arches were lifted into position in August and October, forcing the temporary closure of the narrow maritime channel to ship traffic (see EDM, September 6, 2017). This action raised serious concerns in Ukraine and the West. The project’s first operational phase should be completed in December 2018.
The Russian bridge to Crimea is a strategic priority for the Kremlin and has been driving important security-sector developments in the region. Notably, in the fall of last year, the Russian Federation initiated a marine brigade within the National Guard tasked specifically with defending the Kerch Strait and the Bridge from potential provocations (TASS, October 25, 2017). Additional responsibilities for the brigade will include the protection of the wider perimeter around the bridge, on both land and sea (C-Inform.info, November 7, 2017). The brigade is being equipped with anti-saboteur ships (Interfax, May 17, 2017) and combat divers (RT, October 25, 2017); and a sonar system (sonobuoys) is being deployed around the perimeter of the Kerch Bridge (Flotprom.com, October 3, 2017). Moreover, Russia is paying particularly close attention protecting the massive project from any possibility of intentional ramming: there are now plans to construct a special hydraulic engineering structure in the form of a stand-alone column—named the “Pal”—which will be built by the Research and Development Institute “Atoll” (Aif.ru, June 8, 2017).
At the same time, Moscow has been bolstering its defense of the wider Kerch Strait area. Namely, Russia intends to launch “unmanned underwater vehicles” into neighboring waters, including the Azov Sea. Most likely, this will be the underwater robotic complex “Penguin,” designed to detect explosive devices and enemy divers (Topwar.ru, September 21, 2016). Moreover, it is deploying S-400, Buk and Tor surface-to-air missile systems to the region (RT, October 25, 2017).
The Kremlin has been keen on bolstering its so-called Anti-Access, Area-Denial (A2/AD) capabilities around occupied Crimea and the Kerch Strait for years. Interestingly, one of the stated pretexts for the creation of such an A2/AD zone was the alleged intensification of Ukrainian saboteurs and Ukrainian intentions to destroy the Kerch Strait Bridge (see EDM, October 12, 2017; December 5, 2017). The A2/AD zone will supposedly be a multi-layered and multi-level system of defense to counter military encroaches from the air, sea (both surface and underwater) as well as land. And following recent months’ incidents involving drone attacks on Russian military installations in Syria (see EDM, January 11, 16, 17, 2018), these A2/AD plans will likely be further prioritized by Moscow. The latest developments in January strongly suggest that this is in fact the case.
First, last month, Russia deployed a new S-400 air-defense division in Sevastopol (Vz.ru, January 13, 2018). A similar such unit was also deployed precisely a year ago, in January 2017, in Feodosia, located on Crimea’s eastern coast. Reportedly, the primary goal of these deployments is the creation of an air-defense and exclusion area over northern Crimea and the southern regions of Ukraine (Crimea.kp.ru, January 13, 2018). Second, the January 5 drone attack against the Russian military airbase of Khmeimim, in Syria, aggravated concerns in Moscow that any strategic object could become a target for UAVs carrying explosives, including theoretically the Kerch Bridge. Currently under consideration is an idea to organize special groups within the National Guard tasked with repelling UAV attacks. Such units would be equipped to destroy incoming drone swarms before they can approach a strategic location or piece of infrastructure (Iz.ru, January 9). Thus, in all likelihood, Crimea and the zone around the Kerch Bridge may be among the first territories to host a supplementary anti-UAV unit because the defensive measures currently in place lack the ability to effectively fight against such new technological threats (Vpk.name, January 12).
Third, local Crimean occupying authorities have reportedly pushed for the establishment of a special working group on developing an integrated security system for the Kerch Bridge (Kerchinfo.com, January 22, 2018). On January 31, this working group met for the first time and discussed measures to ensure the safety of the construction and operation of the bridge, as well as the uninterrupted operation of natural gas and electricity transit to the peninsula from Russia proper (Kerchinfo.com, January 31, 2018).
The editor-in-chief of the Russian military magazine Arsenal Otechestva, Viktor Murachovskiy, noted last October that the Kerch Strait Bridge is strategically vital as Russia’s only physical connection to the Crimean peninsula. And he further asserted that the Bridge is endangered by the following threats: terrorist attacks as well as foreign military forces (including from members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) (Nsn.fm, October 3, 2017). The completion of the Bridge and securing its safety are, therefore, overarching priorities for Russia, while the creation of a robust and integrated A2/AD zone around Crimea and the Kerch Strait is essential to achieving those goals. The Kerch Bridge is not being constructed solely for domestic consumption—there is an implicit message being relayed to the outside world as well that, despite the sanctions, the Bridge will be built. After the tremendous monetary investment and effort poured into this project and its defense, any direct attack on the Kerch Bridge would undoubtedly be considered a declaration of war by Moscow, or at least require some sort of retaliatory response. And the ongoing strengthening of the exclusionary security regime around this area continues to gradually shift the balance of power in the broader region.